Online Research Methods Resource

Module: Selection of the Research Paradigm and Methodology

Dr. Nirod K. Dash, IGNOU

Educational research is essentially concerned with exploring and understanding social phenomena which are educational in nature, mainly pertaining to formalized and/or spontaneously occurring social, cultural, psychological processes which could be termed as education. In doing so, it deals with educational questions that can be investigated in a satisfactory manner, and the methods which enable such satisfactory investigation and the utility of results emanating from such investigation (Dash, 1993). Since theoretical questions in education emerge from different conceptions and interpretations of social reality, different paradigms have been evolved to determine the criteria according to which one would select and define problems for inquiry. Thomas Kuhn who is known for the term ‘paradigm’, characterizes a paradigm as: “An integrated cluster of substantive concepts, variables and problems attached with corresponding methodological approaches and tools…” For further clarification see this article by Frank Pajares of Emory University.

During the past century, different paradigms have taken birth due to the remarkable growth in social sciences research. There are mainly two paradigms to the verification of theoretical propositions, i.e. positivism and anti-positivism (or naturalistic inquiry).



The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the philosophical ideas of the French philosopher August Comte, who emphasized observation and reason as means of understanding human behaviour. According to him, true knowledge is based on experience of senses and can be obtained by observation and experiment. Positivistic thinkers adopt his scientific method as a means of knowledge generation. Hence, it has to be understood within the framework of the principles and assumptions of science. These assumptions, as Conen et al (2000) noted, are determinism, empiricism, parsimony, and generality.

‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such casual links are necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means collection of verifiable empirical evidences in support of theories or hypotheses. ‘Parsimony’ refers to the explanation of the phenomena in the most economic way possible. ‘Generality’ is the process of generalizing the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large. With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal of science is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found. Positivistic paradigm thus systematizes the knowledge generation process with the help of quantification, which is essential y to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationship among them. The examples of positivist paradigm and quantitative approach are provided in Table 1 at the end.

Although positivistic paradigm continued to influence educational research for a long time in the later half of the twentieth century, it was criticized due to its lack of regard for the subjective states of individuals. It regards human behaviour as passive, controlled and determined by external environment. Hence human beings are dehumanized without their intention, individualism and freedom taken into account in viewing and interpreting social reality. According to the critics of this paradigm, objectivity needs to be replaced by subjectivity in the process of scientific inquiry. This gave rise to anti-positivism or naturalistic inquiry.



Anti-positivism emphasizes that social reality is viewed and interpreted by the individual herself according to the ideological positions she possesses. Therefore, knowledge is person all y experienced rather than acquired from or imposed from outside. The anti-positivists believe that reality is multi-layered and complex (Cohen et al, 2000) and a single phenomenon is having multiple interpretations. They emphasize that the verification of a phenomenon is adopted when the level of understanding of a phenomenon is such that the concern is to probe into the various unexplored dimensions of a phenomenon rather than establishing specific relationship among the components, as it happens in the case of positivism.

Anti-positivism is marked by three schools of thought in the social science research. These are phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolicinteractionism. All the three schools of thought emphasise human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approach to social inquiry.

‘Phenomenology’ is a theoretical view point which believes that individual behaviour is determined by the experience gained out of one’s direct interaction with the phenomena. It rules out any kind of objective external reality. Husserl and Schutz are the main proponents of this school of thought. During interaction with various phenomena, human beings interpret them and attach meanings to different actions and or ideas and thereby construct new experiences. Therefore, the researcher has to develop empathic understanding to know the process of interpretation by individuals so that she can reproduce in her mind feelings, motives and thoughts that are behind the action of others.

Ethnomethodology’, an approach of phenomenological sociology, was developed by Harold Garfinkel and his fellow ethnomethodologists. It deals with the world of everyday life. According to enthomethodologists, theoretical concerns centres around the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction. This approach studies the process by which people invoke certain ‘take-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation and make it meaningful. They are mainly interested in the interpretation people use to make sense of social settings.

The school of thought for ‘symbolic interactionism’ was pioneered by Dewey, Cooley and Mead among others. It basic all y emphasizes the understanding and interpretation of interactions that take place between human beings. The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Human interaction in the social world is mediated by the use of symbols like language, which help human beings to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only concentrating attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolic all y meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organizations can be understood. As a result, not only human beings change themselves through interaction, but also bring in change in societies.

The two paradigms presented here are concerned with two concepts of social reality. While positivism stands for objectivity, measurability, predictability, controllability and constructs laws and rules of human behaviour, non-positivism essenti all y emphasizes understanding and interpretation of phenomena and making meaning out of this process. Alongside the presence of these two major paradigms, another trend, which got developed during the post-sixties, gave rise to the third paradigm of research namely the Paradigm of Critical Theory.


Critical theory

The main protagonist of this theory was Jurgen Habermas, who worked at the Frankfurt School in Germany to develop an approach of investigation and action in the social sciences, which could describe the historical forces that restrict human freedom and expose the ideological justification of those forces.

Critical theorists like Habermas were critical of the earlier paradigms as they were not tuned to question or transform the existing situation. He developed theories which were built on a typology of interest. Habermas (1970) postulated three types of interest which generate three types of knowledge:

  • A technical interest concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge.
  • A practical interest concerned with understanding the meaning of situation, which generates hermeneutic and historical knowledge.
  • An emancipating interest concerned with the provision for growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraints and domination.

Critical theorists suggest two kinds of research methodologies, namely, ideology critique and action research, for undertaking research work.

Critical theory has also been criticized by some of the contemporary scholars. Lakomski (1999) questions the acceptability of the consensus theory of truth on which Habermas’ work is premised. Habermas’ work is little more than speculation. Whist the claim to there being three forms of knowledge has the epistemological attraction of simplicity, one has to question this very simplicity (Keat, 1981); there are a multitude of interests and ways of understanding the world; and it is simply artificial to reduce these to three interests (Cohen et al, 2000).


Research paradigms and research methods

Each of the paradigms discussed above has definite research methods which can be used in carrying out scientific investigation.

Positivism which emphasizes objectivist approach to studying social phenomena gives importance to research methods focusing on quantitative analysis, surveys, experiments and the like.

Similarly, anti-positivism which stresses on subjectivist approach to studying social phenomena attaches importance to a range of research techniques focusing on qualitative analysis, e.g. personal interviews, participant observations, account of individuals, personal constructs etc.

Similarly, critical theory suggests ideology critique and action research as research methods to explore the existing phenomena.

The question arises: how does a researcher select a research paradigm and corresponding methodology? The following questions may be raised by the researcher:

  1. What is the nature or essence of the social phenomena being investigated?
  2. Is social phenomenon objective in nature or created by the human mind?
  3. What are the bases of knowledge corresponding to the social reality, and how knowledge can be acquired and disseminated?
  4. What is the relationship of an individual with her environment? Is she conditioned by the environment or is the environment created by her?

Based on the above questions, the researcher can identify whether the research questions pertain to positivism, anti-positivism, and critical theory; and choose the appropriate methodology accordingly.

For a concrete understanding of research paradigms vis-à-vis selection of research methods, please see Table1.


Table 1: Selection of research paradigms and research methods


Research paradigms

Research approach

Research methods






cross-sectional, correlational;

experimental, and

quasi-experimental and

ex-post facto research

- Attitude of distance learners towards online based education

- Relationship between students’ motivation and their academic achievement.

- Effect of intelligence on the academic performances of primary school learners






case study

- A study of autobiography of a great statesman.

- A study of dropout among the female students

- A case study of a open distance learning Institution in a country.

Critical theory

Critical and action-oriented

Ideology critique;

action research

- A study of development of education during the British rule in India

- Absenteism among standard five students of a primary school


Although, each of the paradigms has corresponding approaches and research methods, still a researcher may adopt research methods cutting across research paradigms as per the research questions she proposes to answer.



Cohen, Louis; Lawrence, Manion and Morrison, Keith (2000). Research Methods in Education (5 th Ed.). London .

Dash, N.K. (1993). Research Paradigms in Education: Towards a Resolution. Journal of Indian Education 19(2), pp1-6.

Habermas, J. (1970). Knowledge and Human Interests (J. Shapiro.Trans.). London : Heinemann.

Keat, R. (1981). The Politics of Social Theory. Oxford : Basil Blackwell.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Lakomski, G. (1999). Critical theory. In J. P. Keeves and G. Lakomoki (Eds.). Issues in Educational Research. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd., 174-82.


June 2005

photo of Dr Dash

Dr. Nirod K. Dash

Reader in Education
School of Education
Indira Gandhi National Open University
New Delhi 11 0 068, India


The materials have been produced by IGNOU and MMU with additional support from the British Council and the Central Queensland University.